Freddy Adu’s reunion with Peter Nowak will be the talk of the weekend. He may debut on Saturday against FC Dallas or he may not, but either way, the next several weeks will be all about figuring out the tactics and spacing of getting him on the field.
1. The big decision
Is Adu an enganche like Javier Morales, playing attacking midfielder at the point of a diamond behind two true strikers? Or is he a creative, withdrawn, playmaking forward who drops deep behind a lone frontrunner, much like Fredy Montero or Thierry Henry?
If it’s the first, then things won’t change that much for the Union, who’ve played mostly in a 4-4-2 with Brian Carroll holding and Veljko Paunovic, Roger Torres and Kyle Nakazawa taking turns in the playmaker role.
If it’s the second, it could mean a permanent shift to the wing for Sébastien Le Toux (something he won’t be particularly happy about) and a Union attack that looks much more like FC Dallas than, say, Real Salt Lake. Nowak will have to make this decision quickly since the playoffs are approaching.
2. Is Roger Torres heading back to Colombia?
The young playmaker, on loan from Deportivo Cali, has improved quite a bit in his year-and-a-half in MLS, but he’s not quite starter material yet. With Adu in town there’ll be fewer minutes to spread around in the attacking third, something that doesn’t bode well for development potential.
He could also be quite an enticing trade chip. The Union need back-line depth, and any number of teams would conceivably offer that up for a playmaker with potential.
3. Mwanga and McInerney must be ready
When Carlos Ruiz was sold to Mexican second-division side Veracruz, that left Danny Mwanga and Jack McInerney as the only two pure forwards on the roster. With Adu’s addition — presumably he’ll be taking up the cap space created by Ruiz’s move — that doesn’t change, and probably doesn't leave room for another center-forward addition.
That mean the youngsters (Mwanga’s 20, McInerney 19) have to start producing more than they have been if the Union are to remain in the Eastern Conference hunt.
4. Is Adu all grown up?
The Adu that showed up for the Gold Cup this summer still had the effervescent smile and slick moves, but he also seemed to ooze a certain amount of perspective that comes from three years of eating European-spiced humble pie. The entitled kid of 2004 was replaced by a fairly grizzled vet who was happy to be there and play whatever role was available.
So that’s a bit of off-the-field growing up. On the field, he looked to have grown up a bit as well.
And not just physically, where his improved strength on the ball showed in setting up Landon Donovan’s goal against Mexico in the Gold Cup final. But mentally, Adu looked like he was finally able to combine with teammates and do the work off the ball.
He’s not fully there yet, but the static 1-on-1 play that characterized his game as a teenager was largely replaced by good runs, one-touch combinations and general cleverness in the attacking third (it was his combination with Steve Cherundolo that won the corner leading to Michael Bradley's opener against El Tri).
In other words, Adu looked like a grown-up soccer player, not just a kid who’d dominated at age groups through superior skills.
If that’s what the Union are getting, then signing Adu is a steal regardless of how long it takes to adjust their formation. And Philly may become more than the talk of the weekend — they could very well become 2011’s talk of the playoffs.
Matthew Doyle writes the Armchair Analyst column for MLSsoccer.com. He can be followed at @MLS_Analyst.